Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Prickley Pear Cactus

 Opuntia lasiacanta

by Minnie W Shuler, MS 

   The Texas State plant (starting in 1995), and for some a pesky weed that inflicks painful thorns, the lowly prickley pear with its beautiful yellow flowers has surprisingly great medicinal prospects.  The prickley pear is a North and South American native that loves desert lands and poor soil.  It has been used for a variety of things over the centuries including food.  Some of the more interesting uses include a fence barrier to close in horses and cattle.  No, not even animals are dumb enough to tangle with those 'hair fine' thorns that just keep giving and giving pain and aggrivation.  Medicinally, the native Americans, including Mexican and North American Indians have used the plant for many different things.  Not so surprisingly, even without Scientific Studies to back up the claims, Indian Remedies are some of the most reliable on the planet.  The Mexican 'nopal' is perhaps most famous as a medicine for diabetes and there are some not so well documented studies of a loosely scientific nature on dogs, cats, rats and bunnies that show that it does lower blood sugar.  It would not be wise to trade in your diabetic drugs yet for nopalae cactus juice.  Diabetes needs to be measured carefully and monitored to regulate the amount of change you can tolerate and as I am sure you are aware of -- check with your health care provider.  I am a writer, not a medical expert.  Another not so well known American Indian Remedy that the pant is known for lurks in the use of the richly fiberous roots as a cure for 'kidney stones'.  'Rich tea from the pulverized roots will bust them right up,' my Indian co-conspiritor assures me.  The closest this has been tested is that the plant and fruit has been shown to be diuretic, mildly diuretic.  What parts of the plant are used?  All of it. 
    The prickley pear produces a fruit that starts out green and matures as a bright red.  The fruit is fleshy and has a slightly acrid or lemony taste.  I have never eaten the fruit.  The pads, which house the long spikey thorns and the small hairy clusters of thorns are also the spine of the plant.  The pads are cut off and cleaned then cooked or eaten raw.  The plant is high in muculage and like the okra can be a bit slimy, especially if cooked too long.  There are numerous recipe on the internet as the plant has been used in a variety of foods for thousands of years.  The fresh pad, when cleaned and sliced in two can be applied to burns and wounds with good success.  It is high in Vitamin A and C, which are both healing and antioxident.    Pickley pear power is available commercially in capsule form and dosage is 2 size '00' capsules taken twice per day for diabetes.  There are a host of other claims of medicinal grands attributed to the plant.  I suppose it would be too trite to just say 'you should eat your vegetables, Johnney.  Vegetables and fruits are good for you'.  Add prickley pear to your list of good eats and accept the surprisingly good health benefits.  The pad, thinley sliced, as teriffic flavor to a fresh salad and remember 'cancer doesn't grow on diets rich in raw fruits and vegetables.'  A good search of the net will reveal the specific quantities of each little helpful ingredient in the famous cactus as well as host of commercial products.  Me?  Well, I'd rather just grow a small container or two on my porch.  Gee, I hope I don't stumble into one of them in the dark one night.  Ouch!
If you are going to harvest, get some thick leather gloves on and grab it with tongs before you cut it off and scrape the pads.  Be sure to scrape out all of the tiny clusters of hair like thorns and wash it with a stiff bristled brush.